Something is beginning to make me think Canon intends the EOS R3 to be a full-on pro sports camera.

Time has a habit of eroding certainty like the sea lapping at the foreshore; something like that, anyway. The point being that opinions and predictions have a horrible habit of being rendered outdated, and even downright ridiculous, by events. Which is my roundabout way of saying that I’m having second thoughts about the EOS R3.

When Canon first announced its development, I opined that it was going to be an intermediate model between the EOS R5 and a forthcoming EOS R1, just as the EOS 3 had been, back in the colloidal swamp of the film era. But the latest droplet of attention-sustaining PR from Canon about its forthcoming model has left me wondering: might I have been… how can I say this? Wrong?

Making something from the latest morsels

The latest tranche of specs released by Canon makes the EOS R3 look much more like a mirrorless EOS-1D series camera than I’d previously assumed, based on the original announcement. Canon had already revealed that the R3 will exceed the 1D X Mark III’s maximum burst rate, but the model name and talk of eye-directed AF (a feature I wouldn’t assume to be pro-ready in its first iteration) made me conclude that the new camera would be designed for high-end users, but not necessarily ready to become the default choice of the most demanding sideline sports shooters.

The confirmation of 1D X III-style Smart Controllers in the EOS R3 may not have been as eye-catching as the promised Eye Tracking AF system, but it suggests the R3 will try to match the DSLR’s speed of AF point control

But Canon’s announcement that the R3 will have an Ethernet port and a host of wired and wireless means of sending images quickly from the camera makes me question my assumptions. The provision of the smart controllers, previously seen on the 1D X Mark III, but not the more lowly EOS R5 also point towards the R3 being more pro-focused. And, perhaps because I spend far too much of my life thinking about these things, the use of the same LP-E19 battery as used by the 1D series tells me that Canon expects the R3 to sit alongside 1D X cameras: not just because a large battery suggests a high level of endurance or dependability, but also because it will lend the R3 cross-compatibility for people already using LP-E19s.

So why isn’t it called the EOS R1?

If, as it appears, the R3 is going to be a camera that aims to do pretty much everything a 1D X III can do, why isn’t Canon just calling it the EOS R1? To my mind there are three possibilities:

Theory #1: The EOS-1D X III is still too new

The EOS-1D X Mark III hasn’t yet had its chance to shine. Canon has historically released its top-end sports cameras just before the Olympic Games, with the expectation that they’ll be the primary tool of photographers covering the event. But, with the 2020 Tokyo games still yet to take place, the EOS-1D X III is a camera that hasn’t yet had its day in the sun. The R3’s development will have continued, despite the delay to the sporting calendar, and hence it’s arrived before 1D X III buyers have had a chance to make good use of their investments.

This is probably the theory I’m least convinced by, but there’s always been an implicit compact between Canon and the professionals and agencies that buy 1 series cameras: that they can make the investment with some confidence that it won’t be replaced or usurped for several years. Introducing a ‘mirrorless 1 series’ before most 1D X III buyers have run their cameras in would undermine that, leaving buyers to agonize over whether to write-off their 1D investment and switch to a mirrorless equivalent.

I know I’m reading a lot into the choice of battery Canon has made for the R3, but I wonder whether the LP-E19 is being used so that photographers using the new camera side-by-side with EOS 1D X cameras won’t need to mess around with multiple chargers.

The argument against this theory is that Canon doesn’t exist in a bubble. Canon is likely to be keenly aware of what Sony and Nikon are doing, so would it dare risk under-selling its mirrorless capabilities by down-branding a camera, just to protect sales of an older model?

Theory #2: The R3 is the fast camera, the R1 will be high-res

The second possibility is that the R1 will be a high-resolution model, to the R3’s high-speed one. This would fit with Canon’s former approach, in which it offered a full-frame 1Ds model for professionals needing high resolution and a high-speed APS-H 1D model for sports. These appeared to merge with the EOS 1D X, which offered relatively high resolution, high speed and a full-frame sensor, but perhaps Canon has decided a two-camera strategy makes more sense, in an era where the definition of ‘high-res’ is being pushed so much higher than fast cameras can match.

Sony’s a1 offers an unprecedented combination of speed and resolution, but still doesn’t come close to the comparably priced GFX 100S for photographers needing maximum detail

Theory #3: The R3 might look good but an ‘R1’ would need to be perfect

The third possibility, then, is simply that Canon doesn’t want to use its ‘1 series’ designation for a mirrorless camera until it can unarguably out-perform the EOS-1D cameras in every regard. All the specs released so far suggest the R3 should be a match for the EOS-1D X Mark III, but the ultimate test of that will be whether professional 1D X users find they can work with and depend upon the R3 to the same degree. Given Canon’s historical reticence to over-claim what its cameras are capable of, this seems plausible to me (and the no-doubt bruising experience surrounding the R5 and R6’s video capabilities may well have left the company erring on the side of caution).

Ultimately, it’s impossible to be sure, based on what Canon has publicly said. We’re hoping the EOS R3 is released soon, so we can find out for ourselves, but with the rescheduled 2020 2021 Tokyo Olympics just over a month away, it seems likely that the camera will be put to the test soon enough. Maybe then we’ll begin to see what, if anything, separates it from a 1-series camera.

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